PEN America, Penguin Random House Sue Florida School District Over Book Bans

Florida has the second-highest number of school book bans among U.S. states, according to the nonprofit PEN America.
Florida has the second-highest number of school book bans among U.S. states, according to the nonprofit PEN America. Via Kevin Wong/Flickr
Nonprofit PEN America, American publisher Penguin Random House, and several authors have filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the Escambia County School Board of violating the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause by singling out library books for removal based on LGBTQ and race-related content.

"The majority of these books have been targeted simply because they address themes relating to race, sexuality, or gender identity," the lawsuit, filed in Florida's Northern District Court on May 17, states. "The clear intent is to exclude speech by authors based on their race, sexuality, or gender identity."

PEN America, which records book ban incidents across the country, has documented hundreds of book challenges across Florida. The organization found that after more than 200 books were banned in various Florida school districts between the summer of 2021 and 2022, another 357 books were removed from school shelves between July and December 2022.

Florida had the second-highest number of book-banning incidents in the nation during that period, trailing only Texas.

Escambia, the westernmost county in the state, has consistently clocked in the most book challenges among Florida districts. According to PEN America, nearly 200 books have been challenged in Escambia County schools. While district committees removed five books, the school board has removed ten, and another 139 remain restricted and require parental permission.

The surge in book removals — many of which are about race, sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity — comes amid a flurry of new Florida education laws and administrative rules backed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, including the Stop WOKE Act, which restricts teaching about systemic racism in schools, and the state's "Don't Say Gay" regulations, which ban instruction involving gender identity and sexual orientation through the end of high school under a Department of Education rule.

The new laws don't ban specific titles, but they've opened the door for right-wing activists, including members of the group Moms for Liberty, to challenge dozens of books in Florida schoolhouses. The restrictions have been cited by teachers, librarians, administrators, and parents alike as the reason for books' removal from school shelves.

The recently filed lawsuit accuses Escambia County school board members of repeatedly ordering the removal of books against the recommendations of experts within the school district and the district review committee.

"In every decision to remove a book, the school district has sided with a challenger expressing openly discriminatory bases for challenge, overruling the recommendations of review committees at the school and district levels," the complaint alleges.

While the state has argued that the "Don't Say Gay" restrictions apply only to in-class instructional materials, the lawsuit says that Escambia County "appears to have adopted a new practice of automatically subjecting to restricted access any book challenged on the ground that it violates" the Parental Rights in
Education Act, Florida's first "Don't Say Gay" law, passed in 2022.

"As a result of this practice, challenged books that merely recognize the existence of same-sex relationships or transgender persons are being subject to restricted access for the pendency of the — often indefinite — review period," the lawsuit alleges.

According to the pleading, some restricted books have no explicit content but were challenged simply because they contain gay characters, including Milo Imagines the World by Newbery Medal winner Matt de la Peña.

The authors involved in the suit include award-winning children's book illustrator Sarah Brannen and young-adult fiction authors George M. Johnson, Ashley Hope Pérez, and David Levithan.

In a press release, Pérez said that as a former public high school English teacher, she understands firsthand how important libraries are.

"Young readers in Escambia schools and across the nation deserve a complete and honest education, one that provides them with full access in libraries to a wide range of literature that reflects varied viewpoints and that explores the diversity of human experiences," says Pérez, author of Out of Darkness, a book chronicling the romance between a Mexican-American teenage girl and an African-American teenage boy in 1930s New London, Texas, before the 1937 New London School explosion.

When reached by New Times, Escambia County declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alex DeLuca is a staff writer at Miami New Times.
Contact: Alex DeLuca

Latest Stories